Officials seek help to divert mentally ill inmates

March 05, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Franklin County Prison Board will ask members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to co-sponsor legislation that would fund programs to divert nonviolent mentally ill criminal offenders from county jails.

The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2003 was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate last year, said Don Murray, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties, or NACo.

"Our challenge right now is to get a prominent Republican to champion the bill in the House," Murray said Thursday. Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland is the primary sponsor in the House, he said.


"We're trying to make it a wholly bipartisan effort, like it was in the Senate," Murray said.

Nationally, about 16 percent of inmates have some type of mental disorder, according to Murray. Franklin County Prison Warden John Wetzel said the figure is about the same for the county lockup.

The act would, if passed, authorize $100 million this year and another $100 million in 2005 to fund mental health courts or other diversion programs, expand community-based treatment, or provide in-jail treatment and transitional programs, NACo said. Money could also be used to train corrections officials and mental health professionals in dealing with mentally ill offenders.

The bill would provide planning grants of up to $75,000 and implementation grants to put programs in place. The bill would require programs to be run collaboratively between a criminal justice agency and a mental health agency, according to NACo.

Earlier this week, Wetzel said mentally ill inmates require a lot of staff time and should be in single cells, although overcrowding means there is almost no space to isolate these inmates.

"The average length of stay for mentally ill inmates is significantly longer, sometimes twice as long," Wetzel said Thursday.

"We've got a guy who has been in jail two years for stealing a pack of hot dogs," Wetzel said.

In most cases, someone charged with retail theft would receive probation or a short prison sentence, but the man has been judged not competent to stand trial, Wetzel said.

"These are stories you hear across the state," Wetzel said.

Murray said many of the mentally ill in jails are there for relatively minor offenses directly related to their disorders.

Most of the mentally ill inmates are in county jails, rather than state prisons where more treatment programs are available, Wetzel said. While state prisons released 10,723 inmates in 2002, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, county prisons released about 190,000 inmates that year, Wetzel said.

"We released 2,000 alone in little Franklin County," he said. Many of those are mentally ill and do not have access to adequate treatment when they are freed.

Murray said a program to reduce the number of nonviolent mentally ill in California jails has shown results. That state invested $150 million over three years and preliminary results have shown a 40 percent reduction in the average time people in this category spend behind bars and a 65 percent reduction in convictions of the mentally ill.

The prison board Thursday voted to ask state legislators to support community mental health programs aimed at the criminally mental ill.

"States and counties have to work in partnership to pull this off," Murray said.

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